George Osborne: make UK a world leader in energy storage

Chancellor gives strongest backing yet to low carbon growth in inaugural science speech

Chancellor George Osborne has said the UK must take a global lead in developing a series of low carbon technologies, including energy efficient computing and energy storage, in his first major speech on scientific issues.

Speaking today at the Royal Society, Osborne maintained he was keen to exploit the economic benefits of scientific excellence to ensure Britain was “the best place in the world to do science”.

He listed eight future technologies, where the UK is already leading, but could become the world-leader.

They consisted of the so-called “Big Data” revolution and innovations in energy efficient computing; synthetic biology; regenerative medicine, agri-science, energy storage, advanced materials, robotics and autonomous systems, and satellites and commercial applications of space.

He also announced multi-million pound funding for a number of university research projects into synthetic technologies with environmental benefits, such programmes designed to produce biofuel from bacteria.

The appearance of many clean technologies on Osborne’s list of priorties represents arguably the strongest signal yet that he is keen to boost green growth.

However, the speech failed to explicitly mention climate science or the ongoing row over the development of onshore wind power in the UK, raising further questions about the Chancellor’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Osborne hailed energy storage as a key technology that could help boost the market for electric vehicles and enhance the UK’s energy security.

Industry experts argue that the development of electricity storage technologies will be crucial to the large-scale deployment of intermittent renewable energy systems, such as wind turbines and solar panels.

“There is the challenge of storing more electricity for the grid,” Osborne said. “Electricity demand peaks at around 60GW, whilst we have a grid capacity of around 80GW – but storage capacity of around just 3GW.

“Greater capability to store electricity is crucial for these power sources to be viable. It promises savings on UK energy spend of up to £10bn a year by 2050 as extra capacity for peak load is less necessary.”

He also said the UK has a particular opportunity to develop energy efficient computing, such as smart algorithms that require fewer calculations.

“IT is an increasingly heavy user of energy – the typical visit to Facebook uses as much energy as boiling a kettle,” he said.

“At the large scale, this means the UK is well placed to solve the challenges posed by clusters like the City of London, which are close to reaching their energy and computing capacity. At the smaller scale, this means UK research leads the way in developing longer-life mobile communications such as mobile phones and tablet computers.”

In addition, he revealed the government is to invest £20m in research into synthetic biology to help tackle “major global challenges”, such as the need to produce low-carbon fuel and reduce the cost of industrial raw materials.

The University of Manchester has secured £4.4m to develop bio-catalysts that could speed up the process of turning biomass into renewable fuels, while the University of Exeter will also receive £4m for researching how microbes can produce biofuel.

The University of Nottingham has secured £2.9m to investigate a technology that could absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and convert it into useful chemicals and fuels.

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